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Arbitrage

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Arbitrage

Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in a scene from 'Arbitrage'

Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s first feature film is as glossy as a shareholder’s report—and just as bloated. Shot in 35mm by French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love, Swimming Pool) with a heavy synthesizer score by veteran composer and Steven Soderbergh’s go-to guy Cliff Martinez (Drive, Traffic), Arbitrage embraces the high-production trappings of studio pics. The cast even includes several Hollywood heavyweights, a few up-and-comers, and the editor of Vanity Fair. The film is slick and rich but completely missing any sense of paradox or ambivalence. It’s Dynasty with a predictable twist.
Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, a supposedly devoted family man and genius hedge fund manager. However, the celebration of his 60th birthday finds him up to his white collar in fraud and deceit. Underneath his charming exterior, Robert is desperate to get on with the tenuous sale of his investment company. He’s shuffled around a missing $400 million, which his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), the CFO and heir apparent, is intent on tracking down against Robert’s protestations.

Robert has a personal problem too. His French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) is getting impatient with late and broken dates. He’s counting on the gift of a new art gallery, where he also buys all the art, to keep her too busy to bother his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon). Their marriage’s equilibrium depends on Robert’s discretion and Ellen’s being able to carry on with her charity work, including some random project having to do with a delivery of boxes from Zappos for egregious product placement.

Despite a few attempts at revelations late in the movie, Jarecki’s screenplay is as muted as the deep-pile beige carpet that populates his sets. For a movie billed as a thriller, this is unforgivable. Despite his flaws—and there are many—Robert is cast as hero; not antihero. Gere portrays him straight. The performance is completely without a hint of complexity. Robert desperately tries to keep getting what he wants when he wants it, and we’re supposed to root for him. He’s all smarmy charm and no remorse. It’s a calculated and controlled spiral that doesn’t ring true.

Standing in Robert’s way are the two women in his life, the earnest, naïve daughter and the suspicious mama bear. As Brooke, Britt Marling retains her quiet, soulfoul looks, but her power is diminished swathed as she is in unimaginative preppy attire. She and Sarandon bond in a single mother-daughter scene, elliptical machines whirring, but are then put back in their boxes until they’re needed to act as elements of suspense once again.

Used in this same way is Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of Robert’s former chauffer, who by all accounts sounds like Robert’s very own Magic Negro. Except now he’s dead, so Robert has to call on the less reliable son. Jimmy puts Robert on the hook, but just as easily lets him go for the price of an Applebees franchise, which Jarecki contrives to put in for class differences. Surely, if Robert has never heard of Applebees the restaurant, he’d know the stock price.

Tim Roth’s unethical police detective Michael Bryer—now an all-too familiar character for the English actor—also lets Robert off the hook. It’s clear Jarecki isn’t interested in putting the squeeze on the man to see into his inner workings—the same type of inner workings of the bankers that led America’s economy off the cliff. He’s more interested in trying to garner sympathy for Robert’s bad mistakes and the outright criminal actions he takes to avoid all responsibility for them. But the real mistake comes with the plot turns to put wife and daughter in the hot seat, as if they, and not Robert, are morally corrupt.
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